Michigan Carp Fishing on Boardman River in Downtown Traverse City

I thanked him for the tip, and he replied with a wave. No problem. We then broke into conversation as if we’d known each other for years. We made plans to fish together sometime. Then I asked him if there were other carp fisherman around, and he didn’t hesitate.

“Well, there’s my friend Jim. He’s new to it. And that Russian, of course, Peter, I think his name is. But he doesn’t speak a word of English.

It doesn’t escape me that every time I tell anyone about the characters in our little downtown collective it comes off sounding like a setup for a joke.

Peter, it turned out, really is from Russia. An older man and the most mysterious member of the group, he might fish everyday downtown—dawn to dusk—for a week straight and then not again for a month. He comes and goes with a wave, always walking, to where, I don’t know. He can point to where the fish are biting and tell you with his fingers and the span of his arms how many big fish he landed on any particular day. But I have not yet been able to decipher how he ended up in Northern Michigan.

Jim, my fellow American, worked for the airlines somewhere downstate. Retired now, he’s a grandfatherly type who likes tosip iced tea while he tends his lines from the comfortable shade of his rainbow-colored umbrella chair. The way Jim tells it, he was always a frustrated bass fisherman. Then one day he saw those massive carp downtown and spent many frustrating weeks trying to catch one. He eventually ran into Robert, as I did. They got talking about bait and hook rigs. Robert tied on something special for him, handed Jim’s rod back and a second later, as Robert recalls, there was a “kafuffle”—the rod leapt from Jim’s hand, hit the deck, skittered across the ground and then—plunk!—was gone, pulled into the drink.

“Well, that sure worked,” Jim deadpanned.

Jim lost three rods learning the ropes that first season, and he always smiles recalling it—the best fishing he’s ever had.

That’s just one of the stories in constant rotation on those hot summer afternoons when the fishing is slow. Another tale recalls the time Robert hooked a carp so big that it snapped in half a forged-steel, No. 6 hook. He hooked another a week later that he guessed was even bigger after it broke his 40-pound line as easily as if it were a thread. Or the time I ran into Peter fishing with little squares of Frosted Mini Wheats, a bait choice that might seem crass to anyone other than a carp fisherman who knows sometimes it pays to get a little creative.

I hooked my first carp on a dough ball when I was 8, maybe 9, and I’ll always remember that fish as a great, golden monster, a barbel-faced behemoth that actually wrenched me backward into the pond when I set the hook, my feet cartwheeling wildly in the mud like Yosemite Sam slipping on a banana peel.

That carp not only left me covered with pond scum and stinking mud, it blew out the bearings in my Zebco reel, fractured my rod at the butt section, and punched a hole through my landing net before it flopped back into the murk and escaped.I remember running home where the condition of my clothes, equipment, and incoherent babbling caused my mother to leap to the conclusion that Scotty Miller—a scabby canker-blossom who lived at the top of our street—had thrown me into the neighborhood dumpster again.

These are the sorts of stories we tell, the same stories I rehash to others whenever asked, “Why carp?” To paraphrase something Robert Kimber once wrote, your favorite fish can only be one kind of fish, and the opinion of the world doesn’t matter.

Your favorite fish chooses you as much as you choose it. The selection derives from something woven into the tapestry of your personal history.

“For Hemingway’s old man it was that huge marlin that sharks chewed to smithereens. For a kid on the lower Mississippi it’s a monster river cat.”

To the members of our little band, it’s a fish that reminds us all of where we came from and why we got into fishing in the first place. And, at least for me, it’s a fish that helped me rediscover that you don’t have to travel alone to the ends of theearth to find great fishing, that sometimes the best thing about fishing is actually the unlikely friendships you form, friends you wouldn’t have otherwise chanced to meet were it not for the golden opportunity found so close to home.

Get great tips for catching Michigan carp, from bait to setting your drag

Bob Butz writes from Lake Ann. His latest book, "Going Out Green" presents a quirky but informative look at natural burial options in America. [email protected]

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